In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed Congress with bipartisan support, providing funding for studies of intimate partner violence (IPV), the creation of necessary trainings and other materials responding to the issue, and the development of resources that help individuals exit dangerous and abusive situations. VAWA has been reauthorized twice—in 2000 and 2005—and is currently up for reauthorization again. This time, though, the bill faces challenges in getting through Congress, and proposed adjustments the Act’s funding threaten VAWA’s integrity. Ensuring that VAWA passes should be on everyone’s minds, since IPV occurs in all of our communities. But immigrant communities—especially immigrant women—may be particularly affected by any changes to VAWA.
IPV is a wide-reaching issue, with over two million injuries from IPV per year. But while male-on-female violence in heterosexual relationships is the stereotypical image of an abusive relationship, it is important to recognize that IPV also occurs in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community and that men and women alike may be subject to IPV.
Not only is IPV common in all of our communities, but it is also has serious reproductive health implications. When fear permeates a relationship, the battered partner is less likely to discuss or insist on condom use. This raises the likelihood of transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV—in fact, young women who experience IPV are more than twice as likely as their peers who don’t experience IPV to report HIV or other STI infections, and more than half of adolescents diagnosed with HIV or another STI report having experienced IPV. Reproductive coercion as a form of IPV is on the rise, including reports of birth control sabotage—for example, throwing away birth control pills or purposefully damaging condoms—as well as forced or prohibited abortion, or threatening to leave a partner if she doesn’t get pregnant.
But IPV is actually more than a reproductive health issue—it’s a reproductive justice issue, because certain elements of an individual’s identity affect how she experiences and copes with IPV. Factors such as physical appearance, dominant language, sexual orientation, or immigration status, for instance, affect how comfortable a person experiencing IPV will be calling the police; how readily she can access the resources necessary to support her exit from an abusive relationship; and how law enforcement and other authorities will respond to calls for help. A woman who isn’t fluent in English may not be willing to call the police for fear that she will ultimately be the one arrested because she can’t explain the situation; if the same woman doesn’t have a current immigration status, she may also fear immigration consequences due to programs like Secure Communities (S-Comm) that encourage or force local police to support federal immigration authorities’ activities. Without outside help, an undocumented woman may not be able to obtain enough stability, independent of her abusive partner, to be able to leave a situation that may be dangerous for herself and her children. And past negative experiences with police may lead an individual who is queer or gender non-conforming to see law enforcement officials as violators, rather than protectors, of their rights.
VAWA admittedly doesn’t solve all of these problems—it won’t neutralize bad immigration policies, can’t undo years of violence against the LGBTQ community, and may not provide resources or solutions for every individual experiencing IPV. Without reauthorizing VAWA and preserving its funding, though, these problems will be even more serious. Already in 2011, over 9,000 requests for services went unmet in one day. With cuts to VAWA funding, over 3 million individuals experiencing IPV could be unable to access the resources they need to reach safety and live with health, dignity, and justice.